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Diversifying Congress, One Techie at a Time

Photo: Shutterstock

Congressional staff aren’t supposed to make news.  But that's what happened this summer, when a sea of white faces, posed with the Speaker of the House, revealed a sad reality: our representative government isn’t really representative.

Thirty-eight percent of Americans are non-white.  Among millennials-- the age of the interns in the photo-- 45 percent are non-white.  But within the Speaker’s photo, among the couple hundred interns, it was hard to find a single person of color.

Congress and tech don’t have a whole lot in common, but they do share the unfortunate truth that neither represents the diversity of the United States.  Regardless of the response from House Democrats, who posted a photo showing a much more diverse set of summer interns, the real numbers don’t lie.  Staffing in Congress is not diverse.   

Why don’t Congressional staff look like the rest of America?  The problem is complex, but there are two core reasons:  low or no pay for entry level jobs, and a hiring system predicated on pre-existing relationships.  

The typical path to a Congressional staff position is through an internship or an entry level job.  But most internships are unpaid, and most entry-level jobs don’t pay a living wage.  In fact, one of the standard pieces of advice for someone trying to get their foot in the door in Congress is to offer to work for free.  And entry level jobs-- the Staff Assistant role-- start at between $28,000 and $35,000 a year.  

As a consequence, the pipeline to the vast majority of Congressional staff roles privilege talent that come from specific, economically advantaged backgrounds. It’s extremely difficult to survive that first job if you don’t come from money.  Entry level positions require holding a second job or coming from a family with means in order to pay the rent in Washington, DC.

Staff are massively underpaid as it is.  And cuts to office budgets-- 35% since 2010-- have only exacerbated the problem.

When I interned for Rep. Waxman in 2004, I was offered a stipend of $1,000/month.  But by 2014, most offices, including ours, had stopped paying its interns.  We agonized about not being able to pay at least a small stipend.  But the average Member of Congress has $300,000 less to work with today than it did 2010. 

Let me repeat that.  A Member of the House of Representatives now has $1,250,000 to spend to run their office, down from $1,520,000 in 2010.  A House Member cannot, by law, employ more than 18 staff.  The average office spends 74% of its resources on staff.  Based on those numbers, the average staffer will earn $11,000 less than he or she did just six years ago.  This doesn't even account for inflation.  

These cuts forced very difficult tradeoffs.  Using money that was previously devoted to interns meant we could stave off even further cuts to staff salaries.  In order to offset the cuts to the internship program, we worked hard to source our interns from programs that could pay a stipends out of their own budgets.  Most of the time, we were able to find an intern from an independent program that paid a stipend.  But otherwise, post-2013, the interns went unpaid.  No doubt, there are highly qualified young people that would like to serve their country in Congress but can't afford the cost of the internship in order to get their foot in the door.  

Most offices in Congress hire staff referred through pre-existing relationships. This hiring practice disadvantages people who may be qualified to serve but lack access to networks into Congress.

Research shows that networks are how most people find work.  By some estimates, up to 80% of people find jobs through their friends and networks.  I’d guess that, in Congress, this percentage is even higher because many jobs-- if not most-- aren’t even advertised.

Offices hire largely through word of mouth-- typically sending an email to their party’s Chiefs of Staff List, or circulating to a small number of allies.  And the jobs that are advertised sit on job lists that aren’t known outside of House and Senate Office buildings, some of which charge a fee to join.*  Since most offices hire through people they know, and most people socialize with people that look like they do, this creates a self-perpetuating cycle of exclusion.**

Darren Walker, President of the Ford Foundation recently wrote a New York Times op-ed about how inequities such as these continue to fuel the disconnect between talent and opportunity, which mirrors the hiring process on Capitol Hill.  

We often hear that success is “all about the people you know” — as if it’s just a matter of equal-opportunity relationship building. We rarely talk about how one knows them, or about the privilege that has become a prerequisite to knowing the right people. I sometimes get calls and emails from friends seeking help in landing internships for their children. I understand what they’re doing; this is part of being a parent. Still, it’s a reminder that America’s current internship system, in which contacts and money matter more than talent, contributes to an economy in which access and opportunity go to the people who already have the most of both.

This "advantage of access" is part of my own story.  My dad was a staffer in the Senate in the 80's.  When I decided after college that I was interested in interning on the Hill, my dad picked up the phone to help.  I was able to get an informational interview with a senior staffer, and that conversation ultimately led to my internship with Rep. Waxman.  And the people I met in that internship have helped me land every subsequent job.

I was privileged.  I benefited tremendously from the existing internship and hiring structure that Darren Walker cites.  If I hadn’t had that first internship on the Hill, I would not be sitting where I am today.  

It's with my appreciation of the advantages I've had along the way that I believe we need to retire these legacy systems which keep underrepresented voices from accessing positions of leadership.  Congress should represent the wide range of experience and expertise in this country.  We need to create ample pathways for talent and leadership from underrepresented communities to build careers on the Hill.   

TechCongress is one attempt—our attempt—to fix this broken system. The mission of TechCongress is building 21st century government with technology talent.  We are working to bring in different voices and perspectives to help modernize the U.S. Congress.  But we also believe that our talent, and those voices, should understand the tech sector and also represent the experience and demographics of the population of the United States.

We’ve designed TechCongress understanding that Congress has a technology and a staffing problem.  Building an effective organization requires that we be aware of—and try to develop solutions for—both challenges. In order to meaningfully meet these challenges and honor our inclusive values, it is necessary to spell out the dynamics which promote exclusion on the Hill in the first place.

Inclusion is one of our fundamental values.  Our work starts with a focus on broadening access to the levers of power.  And we embrace diversity and inclusion across multiple dimensions and actively seek and recruit applicants from underrepresented communities in order to do so.  This commitment and practice is part of our governing documents, and a value we model as we continue to grow and build TechCongress.  We pay a living wage and create a pathway into Congress that-- despite other great internship and fellowship programs-- remains a rare, accessible pathway to Congressional staff roles.

We also understand that we need to do a lot more than just talk about these values.  Tactically, we have a responsibility to put these values into action.

We’ve tried to be very thoughtful about the language we use to describe the Congressional Innovation Fellowship because research shows that language can have a huge effect on the type of candidates you attract.  Phrases regularly found in job descriptions often signal bias.  The use of masculine gendered words like “ambitious,” “competitive” and “assertive,” for example, will discourage female applicants.  

We worked hard to design our application materials to be broadly appealing.  We used an online service called Textio, which reviews your job postings for gender bias.  The first time I ran the fellowship announcement through Textio, we scored a 23 out of 100 (if you’re keeping score, that’s pretty bad).  After removing a bunch of jargon and making a lot of revisions, and with help and feedback from others, the score for the fellowship application materials improved to 97.

Who we advertise to is also incredibly important.  People will only apply for the program if they’re aware it exists.  As a white, straight, liberal male, the communities I know and occupy in many cases reflect those characteristics.  In order to attract applicants underrepresented in the tech space, we are working hard to partner with relevant groups to reach those communities (and side note—if you have advice about groups we should connect with, please drop us a line).

We’ve committed to directing at least 51% of our outreach to groups working with underrepresented communities.  To track our progress, I keep a Google spreadsheet of every group or community leader a TechCongress team member contacts to circulate fellowship information.  And when we recruited for our 2016 class, we circulated the application to over 100 groups, communities, or networks, 53% of which work with underrepresented communities.

When it comes time to select our fellows, minimizing unconscious bias—which research has shown can have a significant effect on hiring—is very important.  During essay review, thanks to a nimble online application tool, we remove the names and other identifying information about applicants in order to minimize any unconscious bias.

And when we interview, we use a predetermined set of interview questions to ask each candidate in order to provide a fair and equal interview focused on the skills and qualifications necessary to perform the job.  This also keeps us from asking leading questions or giving priming statements that may benefit one kind of candidate or hurt another.  In addition, we’re committed to following the NFL’s Rooney Rule and interviewing at least one minority candidate for each fellowship slot.

Finally, when it comes time to managing the fellowship program itself, we’re working hard to operate inclusively.  We have a diverse Board of Advisors.  We connect fellows to mentors who are themselves from underrepresented communities.  We’ve taken the Tech Inclusion pledge and are following the recommendations of Project Include.  And we are trying to be transparent about how we’re operating—where we’re succeeding, and where we could use some work.

Of our first class of 213 applicants, 43% were people of color.  And of our top 10 applicants (those who we interviewed for the fellowship), five applicants were women, four applicants were people of color and three applicants were veterans.

But, of course, we’re still a young program.  And I am a white male founder living in San Francisco.  I live a privileged life, and wear blinders about many things as result.  There is a lot more we can do to build an inclusive fellowship program, and we will continue to try and improve as TechCongress grows.

Just as the diversity-in-Congress-problem is complex, there's not a silver bullet solution, either.  A lot of the challenges, at their roots, result from a lack of resources—namely, office budgets and staff capacity.  But there are actions we think we can take to make some incremental change and serve as a model to others.

A version of this piece originally ran on the TechCongress blog.


*When I was a staffer, I kept a google doc, which I updated every few months, in order to keep track of job lists, so that I could share it with others looking to find work on the Hill.  The full list (out of date, but available here) was over a page long.  

**It’s important to note that many are already doing good work to make Congress a more inclusive place.  Existing internship and fellowship programs, including the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation, the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute and the The Asian Pacific American Institute for Congressional Studies deserve credit for doing great work bringing in underrepresented voices into Congress. Minority Whip Hoyer built an online job bank and Senator Reid has employed a staffer specifically focused on improving diversity in the Senate since 2007, and both deserve credit for their efforts.  We believe TechCongress can contribute to this necessary work.

Author:

Travis Moore is the founder and director of TechCongress, based at the Open Technology Institute at New America. TechCongress connects Congress to technology talent, training, and ideas and organizes the Congressional Innovation Fellowship.